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Giving Anarchists Cigarettes: an interview with Mick Farren

By Richard Marshall.

3:AM: You come out of the book as someone very angry and argumentative. Not at all your chilled-out hippy type.

MF: I wrote Give The Anarchist A Cigarette because it seemed like it was the right time to write the book. I was kind of aware that I was an argumentative proto-punk type, not at all the peace and love hippy stereotype. All that Austin Powers fake psychedelic stuff was not at all what I think the Sixties was about. The Sixties was a pretty argumentative decade. Starting form the fall of the Harold Macmillan government to the assassination of JF Kennedy to the Vietnam War and everything else, there never was any motivation to be docile. And I certainly wasn’t alone in that. There were quite a few bad-tempered people walking about. It was useful rekindling my memories to write the book now and I hope it was useful — writing the book at just about the turn of the Millennium — because too much was just being rewritten and confused by people who just weren’t there. Inaccurate stuff. I wasn’t about to write history except my own small part in it but that was very important. But yes, as you say, I probably was one of the more argumentative ones of that time.

3:AM: Yes, I wasn’t there, I just read about it.

MF: Most people weren’t there.

3:AM: Interesting that certain characters in your book who feature in your life — Germaine Greer, John Peel for example, are pretty establishment figures over here now. You’re in LA. Are you an establishment figure over there?

MF: I’m definitely not establishment. Over here, the establishment is just too bizarre. I’m just here actually because, to tell you the truth, I never really wanted to become a showpiece for some past decade. Away from England makes it a much more level playing field although I’m quite frequently tempted to come back and call in a few markers and see what happens. I don’t know. The big problem is that if you gain a certain notoriety in a certain decade then that notoriety kind of wraps itself around you like a banner and it’s very hard to get out of, particularly if you stay in the same place. I’ve always had a fascination with moving from one place to another and not essentially getting bogged down in a lot of tradition and a lot of history. Keep moving, keep progressing, keep changing — the shark has to move forward to breathe.

3:AM: You always stayed a revolutionary in that sense. Other rock stars — I’m thinking of your comments about Jagger but there are others as well — they sold out but you haven’t. Do you feel let down?

MF: I don’t feel they let me down, but I do feel that a lot of easy solutions were taken by a lot of people. I don’t fault them for that but certainly in a cultural context at least, I like the old Maoist idea of permanent revolution and Thomas Jefferson was also very fond of it too! You know, the old quote about cutting down the tree very twenty years was rhetoric. But on the other hand — fuck it! — it really is true. I didn’t start out doing what I was doing in order to carve out a niche very early and then proceed to wear it out for the rest of my life. Life’s too interesting to get stuck into the fame routine.

3:AM: Are things as interesting now as they were then in the sixties or has something been lost?

MF: I think that a lot of things have been lost. I think a lot of things have been co-opted, and worse than that, have been pre-co-opted. Now, any sort of cultural political, whatever challenge, becomes taken up and emptied out before it even gets started. Having said that, there are things happening now which give me hope. Since September the 11th, with everyone driving around with American flags and so on, it was impossible to be critical of anything over here. The President was safe. But since Enron and stuff there’s a sense that things are coming back to life again. There hasn’t been such an open conflict with the President since Nixon. Of course there was Ronald Reagan but I managed to miss most of that. I was drinking pretty heavily through all that.

3:AM: You mention Mao and stuff: is present counter-cultural activity as politically literate as you lot were in the sixties? I get the sense that it isn’t.

MF: I think you’re right. It isn’t. There’s a terrible dislocation. Also, I think television has produced a major diminishment of the attention span and it’s very hard to avoid. Especially if you’re growing up on this from infancy. I was quite banned from it. My access to TV was fairly severely rationed until I left home — I left home at 15 so it didn’t really matter — but today, they get so totally locked into that very short time span so they develop the very short attention span that goes with it. I don’t know.

I see the anti-global people marching about and I say ‘Oh OK!’ Los Angeles once again lurches towards another major riot situation after the racial beating by a cop — we’ll see what happens at the end of the trial — we were heading for a riot situation again a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know. There seems to be a lot of nastiness about in the air and I hope there’s enough sufficient counter nastiness to deal with it. It’s very easy to get lulled into a sense that things are all right, you know, things are alright with my career, so why should I get upset about anything? And that was very much the tenor of the nineties.

It’s not just 9/11. There’s a very strange waking-up process going on in the wake of this new century I haven’t got figured out yet.

What is the best thing to do? I just kind of collect bits of it and circulate them to a growing e-mail reading list and see what happens and, in the meantime, get on with what I want to do. Currently, what I’m writing is a lot more combative. Suddenly, we have Bush, and there’s something to kick against rather than something more elusive and amorphous. In a perverse way that makes me feel rather happy! After the twin towers thing at first you couldn’t utter a word. The next phase was that people were wanting to say things but not really having the courage to do it. Then the final phase, which is still going on — ‘The Homeland Defence Act’ — this anti-Arab Gestapo thing which Bush is setting up is one of the scariest things.

Fortunately, this business meltdown is away from 9/11, it’s a domestic crisis and all the reserve about criticising Bush is falling away and now people are beginning to attack Bush on the radio. Howard Stern is attacking him on the radio. I think to myself — OK. That kind of single attack is great. Howard would never go in first but that kind of thing shows that people are discontented. Rather than focusing on this one incident, things are getting so grim people are beginning to get very apprehensive.

3:AM: Is there a worked-out political stance to this opposition or is it just people saying ‘hey this isn’t nice’ but nothing more than that?

MF: It’s much more the latter. Cuba, China notwithstanding, Marxism hasn’t held up to the test of time. Its bureaucratic flaws and the chance of rolling into Stalinism has kind of been proved and what we don’t see is a new theory. I don’t worry about that because really I found that, like in the sixties and seventies, theory came later and the spontaneous response was what was interesting and exciting. The solid, true-believing Marxists with the Little Red Book in their hands kind of trailed the revolution rather than led it. Although I always expected that I’d be the first to be killed when they took it over. Grassroots fuck-you was what was really happening. The Marxist dialectic stuff was cobbled together later. Often things happened too fast and theorising wasn’t able to keep up with what was happening.

3:AM: That view makes sense of you being in The Deviants because that seemed a very visceral response to what was happening and kept you in touch with this on-going, making-things-happen sort of ethos. Are you still involved in the music side of stuff?

MF: I’ve just finished recording a new CD. It’s still linking with the political stuff, but I’m not even thinking about it anymore. I just do it. I find that in a lot of what I’ve been writing I have to restrain myself, worried that I might be getting tired and doom laden. But I’ve been writing poetry and doing some recordings. At the same time I was coming home and writing vampire novels. I was going through a gothic phase. Which I’m trying to work myself out of because it’s looking a bit gloomy.

But it’s not like I suddenly think — now I will go into the political mode. I mean, if someone rings you up and asks you to write some lyrics like Larry Wallis did a few months ago then I have to move back into an apolitical let’s-write-a-rock song mode — from the gut to the brain to the page into the microphone whatever. It’s become such an integrated thing. It all just pours out. What I don’t seem to do is question what I was doing and believing in twenty years ago. Some of the techniques might have to be modified, some of the things tried might not have been plausible or didn’t work in the first place but for the rest of it — what works, stick with it!

Intuit it, bend it, push it through the filters and see what the hell happens. That’s the only way for any real artist to achieve satisfaction. It may also explain the fact that I’m always constantly broke! I would be betray myself if I did anything else. I get this creepy feeling when I see Mick Jagger singing ‘Has Anyone Seem My Baby’ like he was 23. I want to say to him: there are much more interesting things to explore, so why the hell are you still doing that? It doesn’t even work. We were having a bit of a laugh recently, saying: we’ve sold more records than Mick Jagger this week!

3:AM: Is there a scene in LA that you’re keyed into?

MF: No, not really. I don’t socialise very much in LA because it’s kind of weird. It’s very youth-obsessed and everyone is very aware of the value of their own good looks and sexuality. I tend to stay in my apartment which I’ve had for a long time but I don’t think there’s anything really exciting happening in LA. There are a few people I know and we go out but not too often. One of the problems of being in a company town is that there isn’t that much interesting counter-culture left. There’s probably interesting stuff going along in the Spanish section, but I don’t speak Spanish so that’s closed to me. I might as well be in Pittsburgh.

I miss Britain. I miss it quite a lot. But when I go back I find they’ve built on a particular part of London I remember from the past. I don’t like hearing about identity cards and the last time I went and visited South of the river things looked kind of eerie. But I probably miss England from 25 years ago. I miss New York in the same way. If someone gave me the Chair Of Elvis Studies at Princeton I’d go. But I stay here in LA. I’m not terribly happy here.

3:AM: You were at the Dylan concert at the Albert Hall. You say in the book that it was the event that made all the difference.

MF: It was as important and startling as everyone says it was. It changed a lot of things. We had all known it was coming and we had all been looking forward to it. It was the next logical step in what he was doing if you like. And we all went knowing that it would separate the sheep from the goats. There was no Judas call of course, that was in Manchester. But it was incredible, the atmosphere. And of course it was going to mean a walkout by the woolly CND types and the take-over by the freaks and the weirdos. Everyone was going to move en masse.

We’d had a hint of it earlier at the Wholly Communion of Poets show — Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso and all — but I was a bit slow on picking up what was happening. I missed the Wholly communion but seven or eight thousand people turned up and there was a feeling something was about to happen. But the Dylan thing, that’s what motivated all of us. We opened a club after that — the concert at the Albert Hall was in May and we opened IT, the International Times, in September at the Roundhouse and we opened the UFO Club in November. So when we walked out of the Albert Hall knowing that what we were feeling was greed, it had a gold rush feel to it, the counter-culture was happening. We got out of our heads later — 50% of the music that night was a radical departure. I remember before seeing all these freaks and people, but never talked to them. You wondered who they were and where they came from, where they went and then that night, these people you’d see, people from the top of the bus, they were suddenly all there. It was like we were suddenly able to communicate and meet. So the next step presented us with an ethos without Bob Dylan — and it all mushroomed so fast.

3:AM: And he’s still important in some way?

MF: Dylan’s important to me and people of my age. He’s important to me because we have few ageing role models. Who can we go to at our age? People still doing the work? Ok, we can look to old black geezers strutting their stuff of course, and that’s cool. Old bluesmen. But no one’s ever done this before, not with rock. Dylan, Willie Nelson — they’ve kept going and are showing us how to do it. So I look at him and — hey — so Dylan’s grown a moustache like Vincent Price: well why not? And some of the later stuff he’s doing has been some of the best stuff he’s done for a long time. It’s nice to have someone like that still out there, that’s all. I’m not looking for roadmaps to the soul, that’s not what it’s about. You’ve got to provide them for yourself — there aren’t any out there.

I do a lot of writing and stuff. Zine work I can get, freebies but it’s limited how much free writing I can do. I do the fantasy writing, but that writing has incredibly low rates of pay — I’d be better off working for McDonalds. But working for the above-ground media is impossible. It’s not possible. But I hardly get out to see much, I’ve hardly been to a movie recently except the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There.

3:AM: So what about your underground journalist career? And you’ve worked with people like Julie Burchill etc? Don’t you ever feel the pull to do that kind of work?

MF: You have to be a cartoon version of what you used to be to do that kind of thing. I guess I feel that it takes more resilience than creativity. You go on, longer and longer with the same stuff and that’s horrifying to me. I like to turn a product round and do something new with it and that process, it’s hard, almost mind-boggling, but it’s what I believe in. Everything is strange these days though, some very strange things happening. Like cameras following the Osbournes around now, what a weird thing. And what’s going to happen now they’ve found out Sharon has cancer? It could get interesting I suppose. How will they cover it? What will the programme turn into? Interesting. But no, I have to keep changing, keep everything moving. I don’t want to be Robert Novak.

3:AM: So it’s a response thing?

MF: It’s a response thing, how I am, what I think. For instance, I’m not an anti-globalist. I was brought up with Dan Dare and world government there was quite a good idea. There are all sorts of ideas around that one, for instance IWW, the idea of one big union. To me, the whole thing has to revolve and develop so I have several problems with just opposing globalisation. You were asking about theory earlier and I guess I’m not looking for a Karl Marx 2. I think that the changes are happening too fast for that. I guess we’ve got to work without theory and see what happens. It’s like developing the unions, it was arrived at but only by a whisker at times. So I’m really, really happy people are saying ‘Fuck McDonalds!’ — but I don’t have to say ‘Globalisation bad, anti-globalisation good etc’.

My approach is that everything has to be seen as multi-tiered. I think that communications need a global superstructure, this mirrors what Roger Hutcheson says, like, you need to take such an approach, the viability of preserving Gallic requires it, for example. You have to look at micros and macros, it’s the home to happiness tandem. What I’m saying is that I don’t want a grey world. Or rather, because this is the way it’s going, a grey world that’s painted day-Glo wild colours. Fuck that, it’s just disguising the real situation. I’m wanting a world that’s multi-tiered, that has real variety, real levels of difference. I think things will function without theory, we can work out the maths behind the machine later. And I think if you start engagement with politicians then you become a politician — you might as well be Bill Clinton.

3:AM: What about the gender issue — you know, the idea that the revolution was a boy’s thing and women still had to play second fiddle? You were involved with some pretty hot arguments with Germaine Greer who you were living with for a time. Looking at the debate, who do you think got it right, you or Germaine?

MF: If a gender had to be assigned to the revolution in my dreams it could only be one of polymorphous perversity. In the beginning it was just us freaks, gay-straight, boys-girls, black-white, prole-elite, human-alien. Then all these splinter groups happened, and, because you can’t stop cultural evolution, you had women’s groups, gay groups, black groups, and the speed freaks copped attitudes with the junkies. Everyone seemed to think that their self-interest should be liberated first and according to their avowed agenda. Then everything did a binary subdivide every six and a half days, until you had David Bowie and total anarchic chaos which upset everyone no end, except those of us whose goal had been total anarchic chaos in the first place, and we still had David Bowie with whom to contend.

Much can be summed up in a neat piece of heresy. The bohemian white Anglo male is oddly suited to revolution since he comes to it without self-interest, having been top of the food chain and given away empires. The only way to escape the guilt is to become an ultimately altruistic dinosaur brigade on the side of the mammals. Romantic and self destructive in the manner of Byron or Che Guevara, and largely ineffectual, except occasionally when it counts, and the clowns get under the radar.

Bart and Lisa represent the current scoring in any perceived gender competition.

I do a duet with Johnette Napolitano on the new record that kinda says a lot of it.

3:AM: This is the new Deviants’ CD?

MF: The Deviants’ brand new, studio CD is titled Dr Crow, and will be out on Track Records in the UK at the end of September. Around the same time, the Do Not Press will be bringing out a one volume reissue of The DNA Cowboys Trilogy.

3:AM: You’re used to opposition from the right-wing establishment, but did you ever feel that there were people on the left who were also not particularly helpful? Were there times when you doubted what you were doing?

MF: I never exactly thought I was on the wrong road, but I did feel there were some very weird people walking it with me. All revolutions, even cultural revolutions, attract a lot of hardcore misfits, and by about 1971 one could almost feel surrounded by all manner of predators and victims, psychopaths, sociopaths, jailbirds, failed criminals, serious addicts, born losers, and the just plain delusional. Something we used to call “going Manson”, was a group dynamic in which bands, communes, Ashrams, theatre troupes, and collectives would isolate themselves from anyone who didn’t share their exact agenda, mindset, and sexual preference menu, and then proceed to go wholly insane. I think you can count the Angry Brigade, most of the European Trot gangs, incarnations of Amon Dul, burned-out Provos, Graham Bond but not Led Zeppelin, and those German blondes who would start out as groupies, fuck all the boys, and finish up carrying Uzis for the PLO. That’s the danger of clubs. They unleash the demons. I almost succumbed to something of the sort while waiting for my Old Bailey trail, but the girls slapped me out it, and I got drunk instead.

3:AM: I guess another accusation levelled against the sixties revolution was that not only was it sexist but it was also very white. What do you think about that?

MF: A Detroit Black Panther that I met with Brother Wayne set me straight thus: “You white freaks just want to burn down the palace of consumer capitalism. We’d all like to live in the motherfucking palace for a while before we burn it down.” Seemed reasonable, except the foundations of the palace were shifting anyway. I always admired the way Fidel ran a fully integrated revolution as early as 1960. I have always shunned separatism.

I’m with Lenny Bruce on racism. I am not a racist, but I’m an Englishman, goddammit. I was friendly with Michael X, until he attempted to turn over the entire Ladbroke Grove hashish business at gunpoint. A relationship was always maintained with the local dreads and militants because we were getting fucked over by the same coppers, but that didn’t stop anyone getting wilded on by mad teenage rudies. I drank my way through the eighties with McSpade and Ike the Dike and they saved my ass from both rednecks and fresh out the joint double Muslims. It’s all really Lawrence of Arabia, though. Yo. Genetics and culture define one, but it’s so complex and there’s so little education anymore. I mean, MTV wiggers. Learn to laugh at it. If we don’t, we’ll fucking kill each other. Word up!

3:AM: I like the picture. Taken whilst you were on the David Frost show back then.

MF: Yes. The line being delivered was: “You’re poisonous. You would poison a cannibal.”

Mick Farren
‘s The Tale of Willy’s Rats can now be read online. The Deviants’ new CD, Dr Crow, will be released shortly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 4th, 2002.